Last year The Forgiveness Project ran a series of ten conversations on forgiveness as a way of marking and celebrating our tenth anniversary. Every event sold out and the series was so popular with that many people requested we continue to debate this compelling and complex subject in this manner. And so this autumn we have resumed with a Forgiveness Conversation called ‘Life After Hate’ – a highly personal and enthralling discussion at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace about the causes and consequences of violent extremism. We were invited to share in the reflections and motivations of two extraordinary people– Arno Michaelis a former far right extremist from the US, and Bjørn Magnus Jacobsen Ihler a survivor of the Utøya massacre in Norway. The discussion was skilfully led by Vidhya Ramalingam a far right specialist who told of how in her research she had lived amongst far right extremists only to discover that “people who I’d previously thought of as monsters were people like me.”
Recognising the humanity of mass killer, Anders Breivik, was the key to Bjørn’s healing. He told the audience that whilst sitting in the courtroom during Breivik’s trial “the most important realisation I had was that at the end of the day we are all human-beings – something which Breivik failed to see in us.” Both speakers agreed that violent extremism is often a result of people’s pain – and that hurt people hurt people. As Arno said “the roots of violence come from a combination of isolation and suffering.” Bjørn then revealed that since hearing the stories of former extremists he has come to recognise that in some ways there is not much difference between the stories of survivors and the stories of former violent extremists because “most formers have stories of survival too”. Addressing his fellow panellist directly he said, “You’re a survivor too, Arno. A survivor of your own self-destruction.”
We learnt that Arno’s turning point was a result of repeated and random acts of kindness from those he had once claimed to hate. “I wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for those brave individuals who showed me kindness and in some cases forgave me on the spot. Such acts of kindness and forgiveness have the capacity to change people like me.” He described the extreme views he once held as being as fragile as a house of cards and therefore needing to be protected by the armour of certainty. “I was carrying around this armour with me all the time, until I realised I didn’t need to do that anymore. That was incredible because it took me to a whole new of level of connecting with my fellow human-beings; being suddenly vulnerable I could connect with others’ vulnerability.”
Both men spoke movingly of a visit they had made together to the island of Utøya where 69 people were murdered by Breivik in the summer of 2011. In a place where so many had died Arno saw first-hand what people who held views at the furthest extreme of the far-right agenda were capable of doing. He told the audience he had cried like a baby but also acknowledged that the visit had fuelled his determination to be a peace-maker. “Bjørn and I get on so well because we’re both equally defiant; we’re here to defy violence,” he said.
From the audience a former Islamic extremist who had previously been heavily involved in recruiting and spreading a message of hate spoke with tears in his eyes: “everything you have said resonates with me,” he said. “I endorse every word and want to thank you deeply. I feel enriched.”